Updated: Feb 25, 2020
Despite the inflammatory title, I should preface this by saying that I am one of the biggest Led Zeppelin fans I know. Perhaps the biggest. When I received my first guitar for my eleventh birthday, I learned to play by copying everything Jimmy Page did. I mean everything. Luckily I was blessed with a good ear, and a voracious appetite to learn. I know that I wouldn't be the guitar player I am today without Jimmy's influence. I found out later in life that, just like me, Page learned alot of his stuff from copying other players. Stealing licks, in essence. As a young, developing musician, I believe this is essential to the learning process. You need to know what came before you so you can forge ahead on your own. 'Art does not exist in a vacuum' - I can't recall the author of this quote, but it sums it up pretty well, dunnit?
The thing with absorbing your influences is that eventually, if you continue to develop and grow as a musician, your influences start to blend with your individuality. Everyone is a culmination of their experiences, and no two people are exactly alike, therefore no two players will end up sounding exactly the same - as long as copying isn't your end-goal. Some people are perfectly happy to sound exactly like their heroes for their entire lives, never really pushing beyond the realm of idol-worship. Which is fine, if, like I said, that is your end-goal. I learned pretty much the entire Led Zeppelin library in my early teens, but when I play those songs now, I don't sound like Page. A little, but there's much more of 'me' creeping out from under those riffs these days. And, well, only Jimmy can sound like Jimmy.
One of the great things about Page's playing is his diversity - check out the Zeppelin catalogue and very few of the tunes sound the same. There's acoustic fingerstyle playing, heavy riffs, jazzy chords, and great, melodic solos - sometimes all in the same song. Everything you need to become a well-rounded player. Apparently Jimmy learned to play all these styles while working in the recording studios in England prior to joining the Yardbirds. It must have been quite an education. And it served him well throughout Led Zeppelin's career, enabling him to always come up with fresh-sounding material for the band to work with.
But, what about the obvious plagiarism? Yes, there are definitely times when Page's choice of notes seemed a bit too close for comfort. But most of the songs in question came early in their career, and some of them focus more on the lyric-side of things. OK, so Jimmy nicked a bunch of licks from other players. We've all done it. He just happened to become famous while doing it. As the band evolved, there were less and less similarities to other artists, at least in the guitar playing (I can't speak for Robert's lyric choices). Musically the band became a more unique, cohesive unit. The obvious mimicry faded, and Jimmy's style became identifiable as his own. Of course, his roots still show, as they should. But not at the expense of other artists, unless he's paying obvious tribute to them (which Zeppelin did often in their live performances - check out the medley of cover tunes they play in the middle of Whole Lotta Love on the live recording 'How The West Was Won').
So go ahead, steal those riffs. I think there's no better way to learn. But always respect other artists and don't intentionally rip them off. Give credit where credit is due. Learning to mimic and, more importantly, analyze other players is a great way to expand your knowledge and give you techniques and concepts for your own playing. If you continue to work towards being a complete artist, eventually all of those ideas that you nicked will fall away and all that is left is you. Your own sound, your own experiences. I'm still going through this process, and probably will continue to do so until I'm gone or (God forbid) I can't play anymore. I think I still sound like a combination of my influences, but, little by little, those voices are becoming quieter and my own is emerging. It's a journey worth taking. Thanks for starting me on it, Jimmy.